I have a moderately German background. Hence my intense last name, Volkmar. I say “moderately German” because whenever I ask about my heritage I get vague answers like, “Well, your grandmother was a German Mennonite who lived in Russia (or vice versa?) and was also probably of Belgian ancestry, and your other grandmother was Swedish, but your Grandfather was born in Canada……..”, and so now I just say I’m Canadian. Very, very, Canadian.
The German in me likes efficiency. My definition of efficiency borders on synonymous to sheer laziness- Doing as little as absolutely necessary to get the best possible result.
I think when it comes to breathing, efficiency means breathing as much as you possibly can. Oxygen is the ultimate performance enhancing, mood enhancing drug. Take in as much as you can, baby. It’s legal! And free (for now…).
Deep, mindful breathing is scientifically proven (yay science!) to have so many health benefits and practical uses. If keeping your body alive isn’t a good enough incentive for you, here’s some more reasons to breathe better:
- Dampens the body’s production of stress hormones (2)
- Improved posture (the diaphragm is an important postural stabilizer, but more on that later) (1)
- Eases various musculoskeletal aches and pains (more on that later, too) (3)
- You get stronger (through activation of the deep trunk muscles, and use of the Valsalva maneuvre- which dancers don’t really need to do that often).
- Individuals who suffer from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart issues can see benefits from breathing exercises (2)
- Changes in gene expression (through the alteration of the body’s stress response) (2)
Is it any wonder that according to traditional yogic philosophy, proper breathing (pranayama) is one of the 5 important points (along with proper exercise, diet, relaxation and positive thinking).
Dance and yoga seem like similar activities, but they are really the polar opposite. Especially as it relates to breathing. Chief reason being that while yoga is alllll about breathing, dancers don’t breathe at all, and aren’t really taught how.
I remember being in The Nutcracker back in the day, and performing The Waltz of the Flowers. It was a long piece with multiple exits and entrances, and each time I would exit the stage I’d have to gasp for breath and cough up a lung because I had essentially performed high intensity exercise for 2+ minutes straight without breathing.
As a quick side note, I think it’s worth noting that high level dance perfomance is NOT aerobic activity. Telling a dancer to jog or bike at a steady state is not sufficient cross-training to prepare them for the rigours of a performance. Go read this, by Joel Minden (dancer, CSCS, Ph. D). He says smart things.
But anyway, the reasons dancers don’t breathe efficiently are numerous:
- High anxiety levels (being a dancer is stressful, and performing is acutely so)
- Being told to “hold in your stomach!“, and “shoulders back!“, “kind of makes breathing… challenging.
- The high technical complexity of the art makes it easy to forget to breathe
- Not being taught/lack of awareness. And no, “remember to breathe!” is not a sufficient cue for a teacher to give.
- Tight accessory muscles, like the abdominals, chest, and neck restricting the diaphragm from doing it’s work (what’s a diaphragm?)
- High stability demand (aka being on one leg and spinning) compromises diaphragmatic breathing (more on that in a bit).
In dance you actually need to breathe a lot. It affects every aspect of your performance. In most cases you need to be in an extended position through your trunk, while bracing (or hollowing or whatever you wanna call it) the abdominals. Think arabesque. And then you need to breathe. And remember the choreography. And not fall on your face. And not look weird, awkward or scared. What’s a diaphragm??
There’s your diaphragm!
Enter, breathing and bracing. A concept that very few dancers (and people in general) understand. I myself haven’t mastered it (yet), but I theorize that learning this technique could improve nearly every element of your dance technique from balance, weight transfers, jumps, leaps, and just looking more aesthetically pleasing in general.
What is breathing and bracing? In a nut-shell, using your diaphragm and abdominals independently. Holding the core strong while still taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
As I alluded to, your diaphragm isn’t just for breathing– it plays huge role in postural stability. If you’re not using your diaphragm properly, you’re missing out on a whole world of fun stability challenges and choreographic possibilites! (and it makes sense that dancers who have good balance look more calm- Remember the anti-anxiety benefit associated with breathing?)
Dr. Jeff Cubos (who knows more about this whole “breathing and bracing” thing than I do) says:
It has been shown that in the presence of increased stability demand, the diaphragm contracts concentrically while specific abdominal musculature contract eccentrically during inhalation. During expiration, the roles of these muscles are reversed…As a result, faulty breathing patterns and inefficient core stability may lead to clinical conditions such as low back and pelvic dysfunction”. (3)
Sound familiar? Diaphragm doesn’t work properly, so the diaphragm’s buddies (ze spinal stabilizers) start working harder- the ilioposas, QL, spine erectors, and abdominals. So you get things like hip and low back dysfunction, and you get winded after petit allegro because you can’t get enough oxygen.
Maximal postural and respiratory efficiency is achieved (efficiency = minimal accessory muscle activity, or E = MA squared). (3)
Good ol’ efficiency. That’s a way better definition than mine.
THIS HERE is an excellent article by the Postural Restoration Institute, if you want to learn more about breathing and how, when dysfunctional and non-diaphragmatic, it can literally affect e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. that becomes the bane of your dancer existence. Like,
- increases use of accessory muscles of inspiration
- poor neuromuscular control of core muscles
- increased lumbar lordosis
- low back pain
- increased lumbar-pelvic instability
- thoracic outlet syndrome
- MORE (seriously, read the article)
And this here is an exercise from Dr. Cubos that I am currently trying to master. It’s way harder than it looks, but I’ll be breathing like a champ in no time flat.
You’re basically trying not to asphyxiate yourself- Makes the learning curve pretty quick I’d say.
Alright, that’s all I have to say about that for now. More about breathing another time. For now, just try to be aware of it (and whether or not you actually breathe while you dance).
Yes. I’m totally serious- As dancers we are predisposed to being clumsy. And I can explain it scientifically. And I know you’re wondering, and the answer is yes, after reading this you can officially explain to your friends, with science, the reasons why you stumble over your feet and/or drop things more often than your non-dancer friends.
Being a dancer can make you clumsy out in the real world, away from the dance studio. And this is important to realize, because even though we are dancers, we are first people.
The anatomy of dance blows my mind on almost a daily basis, and I sometimes have these moments of enlightenment (usually when I’m in the shower, don’t ask why…) that make me go OHHHHHHHHH!!! Science is cool.
Are you a dancer? Do you drop stuff a lot? Do you spill things on yourself more than your non-dancer friends? Do you trip over your own feet daily? Is precision vegetable chopping a dangerous activity? You are not alone.
I think there’s a high expectation for dancers to be poised and graceful constantly, but in reality, we’re anything but. That said, when we DO trip and fall, it is likely to be the most graceful fall. Ever. Falling is (unfortunately) a part of dance. It happens. On stage. So you learn to fall with as much dignity as possible. It’s a really good life-skill.
Anyway, back to the point at hand. I have 2 main reasons why being a dancer could predispose you to being clumsy:
1) Dancers are often limitated in dorsiflexion.
I’ve mentioned it before, so I’m not going to beat this to death, with a lead pipe, in the library… But I’ll say it again in case you missed it: Dancers will tend to lack ankle dorsiflexion (the ability to flex your foot) compared to plantar flexion (pointing your foot).
Your body becomes what you do with it the most. If you eat tubs of ice cream on the daily, you tend to look like Honey Boo Boo’s mom. And much by the same token, if you point your feet for hours every day, they tend to naturally stay more pointed.
This is a concept called “plasticity”. If you think of a plastic bag, and how you can deform it’s shape- stretch it slowly and you can get it to stretch out and change shape. Think of your body like this plastic bag- it will deform gradually, over time, based on the things you do with it.
Many dancers I assess (and myself included) have much greater range of motion in their ankles through plantar flexion than they do in dorsiflexion. Not only can improving this imbalance put more spring in your step (literally, you’ll be able to get into a deeper demi-plie and thus, better jumps and leaps) but it can help prevent injuries like shin splits and Achilles tendinitis. And not just ballet dancers, but you Irish dancers too, who I’m pretty sure never really put their heels down on the floor.
The good news is that you can train in such a way that will allow you to get back some of the ability to flex your feet, and this won’t make your feet any less pointy. Ideally, you want your dorsiflexion to be stronger than a kitten.
Now think about what your foot needs to do when you walk- You need to flex your foot as you swing it through to take a step. What if your foot can’t flex enough? One of two things happens- Your toe hits the ground and you trip, OR you turn your foot out and roll it in (evert/pronate it) to avoid your toes hitting the ground.
This also explains why it’s so comfortable for us dancer to walk turned out- It’s a trip-prevention mechanism.This is a poor mechanism however, because by turning out your leg, you’re not addressing the actual structural issue, you’re placing more strain on the knee, AND you’re just reinforcing another imbalance at the hip joint, aka, turnout.
Just blew your mind didn’t I?
Since I stopped taking regular ballet classes, I actually trip less. Weird, isn’t it?
2) Dancers tend to develop some kind of thoracic outlet syndrome
What’s TOS (thoracic outlet syndrome)? Long story short, there is a bundle of nerves up in your armpit area (the brachial plexus) that innervates your arm, and when muscles and other such things surrounding it get tight, they can squeeze this bundle, reducing the blood flow and nerve conduction to your hands. It can also cause numbness and tingling usually in the pinky and ring finger. Especially with you arms over-head.
The brachial plexus (in yellow) can get squished between a lot of stuff. Not a fun time.
Why do dancers tend to develop thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS)? Anyone can develop TOS in one form or another. 9-5 office workers, computer guys, and folks with crap posture in general are also common candidates, but dancers tend to develop a lot of tension in the neck muscles and in pec minor from having to do crazy movements like head whipping, arm contortion, and such-like. For dancers it pays off to check out your scapular mechanics to make sure you’re lifting your arms over-head safely, bring awareness to your posture, and make sure to stretch the tight stuff out
The Harkness Center for dance injuries in New York says this:
Various factors may contribute to compression of the nerves and blood vessels within the thoracic outlet, including:
- Repetitive activities involving a forward-head posture or drooped shoulders.
- Partnering dance movements involving awkward neck and shoulder movements.
- Carrying heavy loads, cases, and dance bags.
- Trauma to the neck or shoulder.
Now think about what it means if you have poor sensation in your hands due to a cut off nerve supply. This could actually cause one to become kind of clumsy, couldn’t it…?
Less blood flow+poor innervation= You drop stuff.
Just another reason to correct your posture- I’ll bet it would save you at least a couple of fancy plates dropped on the floor. And make chopping onions way less risky.
I currently have a nasty case of nerve compression in my right arm, and it’s not fun. My clumsiness has reached a new level, and my arm is in constant, throbbing pain. Fun times.
Now I’m not saying that all dancers are clumsy, or that dancing will absolutely make you clumsy. I’m just saying that these are some pretty interesting correlations, ones that I’ve noticed in myself, and other dancers.
That, and science don’t lie.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Are you a clumsy dancer, too?
This post is dedicated to those of you who are as engrossed in Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains theory as I am. If that’s even possible.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of this “anatomy trains” thing, here’s my attempt to summarize (a fool’s task, I know).
Myers’ concept, which he was able to prove through cadaver dissection (yum), is that the body is intricately connected through myofascial lines. In other words, muscles are connected to other muscles and internal structures through a bunch of sticky connective tissue called fascia. Hence, myofascial meridians.
These lines are actually able to be dissected, though painstakingly, from the body. Imagine having pain in your neck, and by using this theory, to be able to understand how it could be traced to another area of the body by following these lines.
Just being able to of think about my own body, and the bodies of others, in this new framework has brought my postural O.C.D to a new level. And by the way, yesterday, two people told me I had good posture, and it made my day. Just sayin’. Those of you who know me well, know that posture is very important to me.
It’s also interesting how these “trains” of fascia are similar to Chinese Meridian Lines, or the Sen Lines of Thai Yoga Massage (which I practice). These are referred to as “energy lines”, but the Myers’ myofascial meridians are indeed “energy lines” in themselves, as fascia conducts an electric current. And so, if there are adhesion in one area of our myofacsial being, it can disrupt this flow of electricity (or energy) to other areas of the body, influencing it’s function.
sen line kalathari
Note the interesting similarities between the sen line Kalathari, and Myers’ spiral line, above.
And consider that the Chinese and Thai people knew this long before we were able to dissect the individual lines from the body. My ability to (kind of) understand both Myers’ concept of “trains of fascia”, in terms of their functional anatomy, and also the Sen lines of thai massage, in spiritual and metaphysical terms, kind of blows my mind daily.
Of all the lines in the Anatomy Trains theory, the deep front line (DFL) could very well be the most important line for dancers. The deep front line connects the body from the flexors of the toes, up through the deep posterior compartment of the calves, through the adductors, into the iliopsoas and QL and transverse abdominis, to the diaphragm, the heart and lungs, and up into the facial muscles and the tongue.
the deep front line, connecting us from toes to tongue.
When I first read the DFL chapter in Anatomy Trains, it didn’t seem particularly fascinating to me. It wasn’t until I watched the video footage of the fresh tissue and embalmed cadaver dissection of the deep front line that I took a double take at it. And then, after watching Ryerson’s student performance, “Choreographic Works”, I took a triple take, and a few lightbulbs turned on. Yeah. More than one light bulb.
By the way, if you are following my Dance Stronger online training program, the dancer you see in the videos, Sam, was in the show last night. And she freakin’ killed it. But anyway.
The deepest line of our bodies, the DFL connects the articulation of our feet with the ground to our facial expressions. It allows our visceral self to interact with the outside world.
Just like pulling the tablecloth out from under neatly set table, you could, in theory (if there wasn’t so much stuff holding us together), pull one’s tongue out and have in your hand a long chain (or train) of myofascia connecting us down to our feet.
Nice mental picture, eh? Kind of reminds me of a certain Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. where Scratchy gets his guts pulled out. I was pretty much raised by The Simpsons.
Consider the expressions, “I had a gut feeling”, or “it took my breath away”. As it turns out, the muscles deep in our abdominal cavity(transverse abdominis, diaphragm, iliopsoas and QL), as well as the heart, are connected fascially to the muscles of our faces.
I’ve never considered that, in terms of functional anatomy, a “gut feeling” and how it can influence our facial expressions, could be explained. Tightening in the abdominals and diaphragm can cause contraction up the chain into your facial muscles, and form what others see as your facial expression- their perception of your state of being.
It makes me think about how peoples’unique facial expressions are developed over time. Have you ever known someone whose smile was a little crooked, or who had one eye that was more expressive than the other? Or how some people seem to have a more animated face, and how some people have a “poker face”?
You can think of someone’s facial expression originating from their feet, where the DFL begins (or ends). How you feel the world through your feet, and how you react to it, through your gut , can influence how the muscles of our face become “toned”.
As a dancer, this can explain why things like pointing your feet, and having that wonderful connection of your feet to the floor can give you a real, visceral feeling through your belly. And it can explain how when a dancer is really moving with her core engaged, that her face just seems to “dance” too.
Have you ever seen a dancer who looked startled, weird, or just had a facial expression that didn’t match the dancing, or what the rest of her body was doing? I have (and I was one of those dancers).
When you are really “feeling” your core working for you, using your breath, and letting this experience travel up and down the line freely, to your face and feet, you are dancing with your whole body- dancing from your toes to your tongue.
It also explains why dancers who never learn how to use their breath seem disjointed. They just don’t look right. Remember, the diaphragm is connected to your abdominals- They work together. An energy blockage (or fascial adhesion) at one point in the line will affect your performance.
To be even more specific, your diaphragm is fascially connected to your psoas major. And when do you need to use your psoas major? Oh, just every time you want to lift your leg above 90 degrees…
Now my question is, does this feeling or energy originate from the core, and travel up and down the line to the feet and face? OR does the energy originate in your feet, and how you feel the world with your toes, and travel up to your face and tongue? Probably a little bit of both. Especially as a dancer, for whom the foot is an expressive part of the body.
I’ve even had a dance teacher ask us to think of our feet as a “tongue licking the floor”. That image doesn’t seem so weird anymore…
But the point is that a dancer who’s body is integrated structurally, and who has full body awareness (be it of Anatomy Trains theory or not), will have fewer energy blockages along this line, and will be able to feel the free flow of energy, and emotion from feet, to core, to face, and with their breath coordinated with their movement.
This dancer will dance with not only her body, but her visceral being– from the inside out, from toes to tongue. This dancer will appear charismatic, expressive, and more interesting to watch. Her movement will be stronger, more stable, more fluid. This dancer will have better balance and control, because she will be dancing using her core muscles. You will want to be this dancer.
Also kind of explains how when I get excited about something I wiggle my toes and smile and feel all tight in my belly and chest.
I just blew my own mind. The deep front line- The line of physical-emotional expression. Thanks Tom.
PS, you have no idea how many times I mixed up “facial” and “fascial” while writing this.